Back to selection

Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

“We Laid Out the Chessboard of the Movie”: Fede Alvarez on Don’t Breathe

Jane Levy in Don't Breathe

Filmmaker Fede Alvarez made an impressive feature debut in 2013 with his uncompromisingly savage, Sam Raimi-approved remake of The Evil Dead, but it didn’t come close to preparing me for his extraordinary follow-up, Don’t Breathe. That film, which reunites Alvarez with his Evil Dead producers Raimi and Rob Tapert as well as co-screenwriter Rodo Sayagues, is a clinic in how to construct a perfect thriller – a Swiss watch of a movie that takes the audience in the palm of its hand in the opening scene and then squeezes hard for an hour and a half. The premise is elegantly simple: three amateur thieves (Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, and Daniel Zovatto) break into the home of a blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) who they think is hoarding thousands of dollars in cash. They assume it will be an easy job, only to find that their blind prey is far less helpless than they – and the audience – could have imagined. From this concept Alvarez develops a kind of horror movie riff on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in which the audience’s sympathies shift from one morally questionable character to another as the tension steadily escalates. Character, theme, and action are synthesized in a ruthless masterpiece of tension that earns comparison with the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13; as smart as it is savage and as visually precise as it is emotionally unhinged, Don’t Breathe is, for my money, the best American horror film of the past twenty years. I spoke with Alvarez about crafting his flawless exercise in suspense as he was preparing to take the film, which goes into general release on August 26, to Comic-Con.

Filmmaker: I want to start by asking about your casting process, because one of the things that struck me about Don’t Breathe was the strength of the performances – Stephen Lang in particular was amazing.

Fede Alvarez: In my favorite movies I often like when a role an actor is playing is an extension of roles they’ve played in the past. Pacino’s performance in Carlito’s Way, for example, means more when you think about it as a continuation of what he was doing in Scarface. With Slang – that’s what Stephen likes to be called, “Slang” [laughs] – he had played the military dude so many times but never like this. His presence isn’t usually weak, like it is at the beginning of this film when he’s blind and you assume he’s completely vulnerable. So I felt like it was building on his earlier performances but doing something different, and he was excited about doing it for that very reason.

Filmmaker: Obviously you had worked with Jane Levy before in Evil Dead. Did you write the part for her?

Alvarez: No, I try not to go there – on the best days of the writing process you’re in a zone where you feel like you’re inside the movie, just like when you’re immersed in a book that you’re reading. It’s the same mental process, and when you read a book, you don’t need to cast the book – there’s just an image that pops into your mind of who the person is and you don’t really think about it. I did give Jane the script early on, before we even had financing, because we’re good friends, and she wanted to do it. Then when we were ready to go she was on another movie – she wasn’t around, and I needed to cast. We read a lot of people, which is what I like to do – I try to avoid this whole “offer only” thing that the agents in L.A. encourage, where an actor who’s only made a movie or two won’t audition for you. I understand that some actors have proven themselves – Tom Cruise isn’t going to read – but I think it’s kind of lazy for actors who haven’t done much to say they’re offer only. You’ve got to go into a room and read – it’s a terrible process, but if you’re an actor that’s what you do, you perform. On Evil Dead, we had a lot of actors saying they were offer only and Sam Raimi and I both said, “That doesn’t fly here.” We did the same thing on Don’t Breathe and got a lot of great actors to come in and read for us, but we still didn’t have our Rocky when we were very close to production. Three weeks away from production, I checked my Instagram feed and noticed that Jane was in San Francisco – she wasn’t out of the country working like I thought. I texted her and she said the movie she was on had fallen apart, so I asked her if she wanted to make our movie. She flew straight to Budapest where we were gearing up.

Filmmaker: How much work do you do with your actors in preproduction? Do you like to rehearse?

Alvarez: Not really, I don’t like to overdo it in rehearsals, but I do get the actors together for a table read where we talk about logic and whether or not characters would behave the way they do in the script. If an actor is uncomfortable with a line or an action, it’s best to address that at a table read because otherwise you’re going to have those conversations on set when everybody’s standing around waiting to shoot. I try to get the actors to where we’re shooting as soon as possible – preferably ten or fifteen days before production, though the agencies are always conspiring against that. I want my actors to have as much time as possible around the set to talk with me and ask questions and become familiar with the material so that they aren’t learning who their characters are during shooting; they already know.

Filmmaker: I think you can sense that watching the movie – there’s a confidence that everyone on it has, from the actors to the cinematographer and so on, that the audience can feel, and it makes you willing to go along for the ride. You know you’re in good hands. For me as a viewer, one thing I really appreciated was your determination to make the geography clear – how did you plan all that out?

Alvarez: The whole movie is kind of a chess game – the blind man makes a move, then the thieves make a move, then he responds, and the way they move is your story. So early on I got together with all the department heads around a table in my house and we laid out the chessboard of the movie. We created a big board with a hallway, living room, etc. and used some of my action figures to plot out where in the house everyone was in every scene. We’d act out the action and when the blind man would chase the kids…well, if there’s a door they can run through to escape, then we would erase that door. Good, now they have no escape. By the time we played out the whole movie on that blueprint, we knew where all the doors should be, where all the windows should be, where characters should be in relation to each other at any given moment. I wanted the people to behave honestly – when they run somewhere there’s a reason for them to make that decision, which hopefully makes it scarier because the audience will identify with what they’re doing.

Filmmaker: Absolutely. It’s one of the things I respected about the movie, the fact that no one ever did something dumb just to move the plot forward.

Alvarez: I learned that lesson the hard way on Evil Dead. You have to honor not only real world logic but horror movie logic – meaning that even something I can justify in real life might not be plausible in a horror movie. For example, I could argue that, in Evil Dead, when they go to the cellar to check on their friend, it’s believable because they don’t know they’re in a horror movie! The audience doesn’t like it though, because they know the movie’s called Evil Dead and it’s about demons; therefore, they think the character is an idiot for going downstairs and they judge them for it.

Filmmaker: Were there any other lessons you learned from Evil Dead that you were able to apply here?

Alvarez: So, so many. There are so many mysteries about how to make a good horror movie, and the rules change all the time; they’re not the same as five years ago, or ten years ago, but they might be the same as they were fifteen years ago – that’s the trick, things change and renew. I learned a lot about this from Sam Raimi’s producing partner Rob Tapert, who’s made so many of these movies that he knows the things you can get away with and the things you can’t. He was constantly proving me wrong when I thought I knew everything.

Which is one of the tricky things about making movies. You are the director for a reason. Everyone on the set is probably more experienced than you unless you’ve made a lot of movies, and they’ll all tell you how things should be done, and sometimes they’re right – but the key to being a director is knowing when to listen to them and when to say, “Yeah, I hear you, but let’s do it my way on this one.” It can be a real mystery, knowing when you’re right and when you’re wrong and when to listen and when not to. On Evil Dead I had to fight very hard for practical effects – everyone was against that, claiming that no one would be able to tell the difference if the blood or prosthetics were CG. I thought we really had to go through the suffering and pain of doing things on camera, and it ended up being the key to the success of that movie – even before people saw it, they were excited talking about the fact that it had practical effects. And the people who did those effects really did some sophisticated things, because they don’t get the chance to use their techniques as much as they could.

Filmmaker: It’s interesting, Don’t Breathe feels in some ways like an answer to Evil Dead, starting with the fact that it’s an original rather than a remake. It’s horror, but the opposite of Evil Dead in almost every way.

Alvarez: Absolutely, that was the intention. On Evil Dead, people were hating it before I even made it – I’d be writing at my computer and take a break to see some guy writing on a website about how much it was going to suck. I was like, “Dude, just let me finish!” [laughs] Then even when it was successful, people who liked it were kind of reserved in their praise – they would say the success was because the original Evil Dead movies were so great and we were just taking from them. Which is fair, but the last thing you want to hear people say after you make a movie is that you did something easy. There’s nothing easy about making a movie, getting it out there, and getting people to show up and watch it. And getting them to like it is really difficult.

The new movie was kind of a reaction to that. I wanted it to be an original idea starting on a white page. I also didn’t want it to be gory, because that was another thing people said about Evil Dead – that it’s easy to be scary and shocking with a lot of blood. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, but I took the point and decided to see if I could make something scary without a lot of blood. The other thing I was reacting against was that Evil Dead was criticized for being all shock, no suspense – which is true, that’s what we were going for. But on Don’t Breathe I wanted to build suspense rooted in reality, not in fake jump scares built around ghosts. I didn’t want the audience to be able to move on quickly after a scare, I wanted them to have to deal with the aftermath. Hopefully that makes it more tense and gut wrenching.

Filmmaker: Do you ever lose perspective on what’s scary when you know the story inside and out and are looking at the footage day after day in the editing room?

Alvarez: Yes, you have to remember your original instincts when you wrote the script and trust them, because by the time you’ve shot a scary scene it’s like a joke you’ve heard five times that isn’t funny anymore. But hopefully if something gave you a chill when you wrote it, and you shoot it as it was written and get the most out of your actors, that initial intention will find its way to the audience.

Filmmaker: Did you have any other movies in mind as influences? Films or filmmakers who were models in terms of building suspense?

Alvarez: Sure, we were quoting everybody in this movie, from Fincher to Hitchcock; Fincher on the camera movement, Hitchcock on the classic set-up of what if you break into someone’s house and the owner doesn’t call the police – why isn’t he calling the police? Your brain is always asking how you should shoot a scene, and sometimes you’re not even consciously imitating something but it finds its way in. There’s a scene late in this movie that I watched after I shot it and I realized, “Shit, that was Cujo, the whole thing.” [laughs] But you know, quoting things is normal. We do it all the time – when someone asks you what you think about something, half the time you’re just repeating something you read or something your father used to say all the time or whatever. I also like to combine influences from different kinds of movies; on Evil Dead, for example, I thought a lot about Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. The set-up in Don’t Breathe is as informed by Jim Jarmusch as it is by other horror movies, in the way that it follows these three characters living a shitty life and dealing with it while nothing happens.

Filmmaker: How did having a blind lead character affect your visual style?

Alvarez: It determined a lot of things, not only visually but in terms of the script – when the characters approach the house and one says “the lights are out, he’s sleeping,” someone else realizes, “he’s blind, lights out don’t mean anything.” There were a lot of scenes where there’d be a noise and Slang’s normal instinct would be to throw a look that way, but here it was more about reacting with his ears – and then the POV shots were of what he was hearing, not what he was seeing. You can’t have the guy turning around with a cut to what he’s looking at because that makes no sense; instead he would turn his ear towards a place and we would show the space he’s listening to. We also had a sequence in total darkness that we didn’t want to shoot with a character having night vision goggles, like in Silence of the Lambs, or a video camera with night vision like characters usually have in that kind of scene. The idea was to establish darkness for the characters where the audience could still make out what was happening, and I’m hoping that’s a little step forward in terms of film language – now when someone wants to shoot a scene in total darkness, they can do it like this, without feeling the need to justify it with night vision or a device.

Filmmaker: So the visual style grows out of problem solving?

Alvarez: It’s more about doing things the way you feel are the right way to do them to keep the audience entertained. The worst sin is to bore someone, I don’t care what kind of movie it is – as soon as someone has a chance to get up and take a leak in the middle of the movie, I’ve made a mistake. I have a lot of anxiety about that, which is why the camera tends to be moving most of the time. There are very few shots that are still.

Filmmaker: Yet you don’t use handheld that much either – thank God.

Alvarez: I don’t like handheld because it became so trendy for such a long time, and I’m an old school guy anyway. I like a steady camera – I want it moving, but always on a dolly or a crane, or if it’s on sticks there’s a slider to give it a little creep. I’m a sucker for constant movement, though it can be difficult on a modest budget. We didn’t have any fancy equipment on this movie, so a lot of creativity had to go into figuring out how to do things. There’s a long take early in the movie where they enter the house for the first time – you see a lot of elements and spaces that are going to be important later in the story in one shot. It looks like one single shot that goes through the whole house, but it was a combination of old techniques. When the camera needed to go under the bed, we hid a cut as it went close to the drapes, and once it goes under the bed the bed is actually up very high but you don’t know it because you don’t see the floor – you’re looking at the underside of the bed. A lot of things we tried just came from figuring out ways to be dynamic with simple gear – again, it was all motivated by keeping the audience engaged. You can do that very simply; you can get people intrigued by a doorknob just by using camera movement and music to get them interested in what’s on the other side of the door. I don’t know if we succeeded, but that’s what we wanted to do in every shot: even when things might not seem that interesting, we tried to make them interesting using all the power of filmmaking we could.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.

© 2017 Filmmaker Magazine
All Rights Reserved
A Publication of IPF